Exam - Moberly Man Takes Special Olympics Coaching Beyond the Court

May 24, 2016

It was mid-afternoon and the athletes of the Magic City Olympians had just taken the court minutes after wolfing down their brown-bag lunches. Coach Jim Thornton stood on the sidelines, shouting tips to his athletes during their first game of the state-level Special Olympics competition. Many of the athletes spent the morning bowling at Fort Leonard Wood, and the exhaustion was starting to show on their faces.

Jim didn’t seem as fazed by the long day as his athletes. But then again, maybe he’s just a bit more used to it. Jim started coaching the team when his son Chris Thornton, now 29, was in high school. The old Magic City Olympians’ coach couldn’t take the team to the state competition, so Jim and his wife Kathy volunteered. From there, it’s history. Jim’s been coaching the team ever since, and Kathy helps out with the paperwork and keeps the team organized.

Coach Jim Thornton cheers on his team, the Magic City Olympians during a basketball game.
Credit Ashley Reese

The team of adults from Moberly, Mo., competes in various sports for the Special Olympics, including basketball, bowling and track and field. Jim said his relationship with the team is fantastic.

“Once they know that you accept them the way they are, then they accept you,” he said. “And once they accept you, well, it’s… you can just be walking down the court or whatever and they’ll come up and give you a hug for no apparent reason. It’s just amazing.”

While Jim and Kathy could have just held an occasional practice and taken the athletes to the standard Special Olympics events, Jim said they decided to take it a step further. In a small town like Moberly, he said it’s important to keep the team active and off the couch. So Jim and Kathy are constantly thinking of new ways to get the athletes together; he said they’ve hosted fishing tournaments, holiday parties and a variety of other events.

The team also meets every Wednesday at Memory Lanes bowling alley in Moberly where even the athletes who don’t compete in bowling get a chance to get out of the house and participate. In fact, Jim said the lanes are open to all people with special needs from 3-5 p.m. on Wednesdays, and the manager gives them a break on prices.

Durrender Fink is one of Jim’s athletes who competes in both bowling and basketball. She’s been on the team for about a year.

“It’s good and I like it and it gives me time to hang out with my friends more,” she said. “And it gives me stuff to do so I’m not at home bored.”

It was last month when the team competed in the Special Olympics Missouri State Indoor Games. The event was held Friday, March 18, through Sunday, March 20, at Fort Leonard Wood and Waynesville High School. The team loaded up into two vans that Thursday night, one driven by Jim and the other by his brother Rick Thornton. The days were long, with wakeup times before 6 a.m. and the days not coming to an end until after 9 p.m. While the athletes yawned off their exhaustion Saturday morning and Rick fell asleep on the bowling alley floor, Jim was running around like the energizer bunny, cheering his athletes on and helping out wherever he was needed.

If Rick had to describe his brother in one sentence, he said it’d actually just be one word: Awesome.

“He is,” Rick laughed. “To do this, and as much of his time as he put in on this… I mean, we’re down here four days, and we’ve been up most 5 o’clock to 10 o’clock, and driving down here, driving back, organizing it all, getting all the paperwork done, and making sure each one gets their place. That’s a pretty good task.”

Rick said Kathy deserves credit too; as husband and wife, they make a pretty good team. Rick said he knows Jim and Kathy got involved with the team because of their son, but now everything they do is for all of the athletes.

“That’s what Kathy was just telling me earlier,” he said. “She said, ‘We’re not doing this for everybody else, we’re doing this for the kids.’”

Rick also described his brother as a second dad to many of the athletes, and Jim said that makes him feel proud.

“It makes me feel proud because I treat all of them like my kids,” he said. “I don’t treat them any different. I try to treat them with the same respect that they give me.”

Jim said his favorite thing about coaching is the athletes. The feeling is mutual. Christopher Stevens is another one of Jim’s athletes. He’s been on the team for almost 8 years.

“I love him so much,” Stevens said. “He’s like a father figure to me. He takes care of us, how he feels something going on inside of me or my teammates too.”

Jim said that even though he’s been coaching some of these athletes for more than a decade now, they still continue to surprise him. When the team competed in Jefferson City for the regional basketball competitions, he said he watched his son and other members make shots he didn’t know they could make.

“Just seeing them do it, then seeing the look on their face when they see the shocked look on my face,” he laughed. “And they just. I don’t know. It’s just an enjoyment seeing them always do better than what they think they can do.”

Jim said he’d rather coach the Magic City Olympians than a high school team.

“I don’t know, maybe I have a special group, I don’t know,” he said. “But they’re so easy to work with, they’re always, and I’m thinking all athletes are out to please their coach and don’t get me wrong I think all of them do, but it seems like these guys just go far beyond- [they do] anything that they can try to do to help out.”